I’m broke, he’s...not.
November 16, 2017 10:24 AM   Subscribe

For the first time in my life I’m in a relationship that features a significant(!!!) income disparity. I have questions.

The relationship is only a few months old but is quickly becoming serious. It has completely blown apart any ideas I ever had about how good the connection between two people could be; we have similar values, priorities and tastes; we’re at similar stages in our lives; the sex is ridiculous. Everything in the garden is lovely - except that I don’t know how to gracefully handle being broke while he is wealthy-heading-toward-REALLY-wealthy.

So far we’ve tried to make sure we each “contribute” to dating in ways that that are within our respective means, and that works okay. But I am very sensitive to being perceived by his family and friends as a gold digger (they’ve only been lovely to me - but I can’t imagine the thought hasn’t crossed their minds ) and my own weirdness around feeling like a grifter when he takes me somewhere I could never afford on my own or gives me something lovely “just because”. To be clear, he’s simple and transparent and graceful about all this - the discomfort is all on my side.

What do I need to do or read or tell myself to be more okay with this, receive generosity in the spirit it was meant without feeling weird, and not obsess over what is just reality? What do I need to be prepared for if we move in together, get married, have kids? We have similar scrappy-then-upper-middle-class immigrant family backgrounds and education levels; his wealth is entirely self-made so it’s less about deeper class divisions and more about my heretofore-unknown hangups and touchy pride - but I think it’s probably true that while my current poverty is hopefully temporary while I try to grow a business, if I’m ever not-poor again i certainly will never amass the kind of assets he has or have an income that approaches his. If you’ve been in this situation, what did you do/not do to make it work/not work?

(And Christmas! How am I supposed to handle gift-giving?! Sheesh.)
posted by peachfuzz to Human Relations (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Have you talked to him about this? I think you wonderfully describe what your concerns are, make it clear that he's done nothing to stoke these concerns, and ask about ways to get over your hangups. I'm sure you'll get lots of good advice here, but I don't think any of it will compare to what you could get by having an honest conversation with him. Moreover, the more "up front" you can be about this, the less weird it will be going forward.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:29 AM on November 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

gives me something lovely “just because”

If you're feeling uncomfortable about the cost of the gifts he's been giving you, tell him. You'll learn a lot by the way he reacts. Hopefully, he'll respect your feelings and pull back.

when he takes me somewhere I could never afford on my own

This is more complicated. Presumably he is going because he wants to go and is taking you because he will enjoy it more with your company. Accept, unless it's clear that he's going only as a gift to you. ("Honey, I know how much you love monster truck rallies, so I got us a skybox. Maybe I'll learn to like it too!")
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:53 AM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am fiercely independent and make significantly less than my partner, with more responsibilities, and with tons less in retirement. Without him I would take roadtrips to cheap places and buy things only on sale and not go out to dinner and etc. Without me he would go on nice vacations and go out to dinner all the time and buy the things he wants when he wants them. So since he wants me with him when he does those things, and I can't afford to do them, he pays for vacations and dinners out and some "stuff." It has been a hard arrangement for me to get used to but it is a no-brainer for him.

What he brings to the table is money. What I bring to the table is unconditional love, lots of fun, my sparkling personality, superb navigating skills, board-game competitiveness, etc. That is worth the money for him.

We do live together and have worked some other issues out to our mutual satisfaction. It's an ongoing conversation that I am still not used to but getting better at. But don't worry about that just yet; there's enough to work on at the early stages where you are - not least of which is letting go of the idea that you can control what his people think of a new girlfriend he brings around. You can't, and their opinions of you don't matter anyway. The arrangement you and he settle on has to work for you and him; it doesn't have to work for anyone else.
posted by headnsouth at 11:05 AM on November 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

When my now-spouse and I first started combining finances, we did the ratio thing from Suze Orman. 4 accounts:
1) shared expenses account
2) shared savings account
3&4) individual accounts

If, for example, he made 60% of the income and I made 40%, he would pay 60% of our expenses into the shared expenses account and 60% of our planned savings into our shared savings account, and keep the rest for him. I would similarly pay 40% of the expenses and savings, and save the rest.

If someone got a raise or other pay change, the ratios would change and our direct deposits would get updated.

It worked really well for us the first 5+ years and helped us trust each other and learn each other's strengths/weaknesses surrounding money.

Good luck!
posted by jillithd at 11:08 AM on November 16, 2017 [27 favorites]

To you, the topic of money fraught with peril. To him, money is a means to an end. Talk about it with him!
posted by 41swans at 11:09 AM on November 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

You can just ask him how his family handles Christmas gift-giving - some families have rules and structures, some don't really even bother with presents for adults, and some put a lot of weight into what is given in relation to what is received. And you could talk to him about giving gifts as a couple, if you're ready for that in your relationship and whatever that might indicate to each of you, and his family.

Otherwise, seconding Betelgeuse - talk openly and honestly about your feelings as you laid them out here. And seconding headnsouth - find what works for you both, which might come from suggestions of others, or might be an arrangement the two of you develop.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:09 AM on November 16, 2017

A couple quick clarifications, I feel like my question was an inarticulate mess -

1) on gifts - he’s never given me anything objectively extravagant, but they are the kind of small luxuries I would consider to be extravagances in my current state of genteel-ish poverty. A good example would be the fancy soap he knows I love and have been jealously guarding my last bar of, because he had a meeting on the same street as the boutique it comes from. Like, $25 isn’t a lot of money and I would feel like an ass refusing to accept something like that. But then again it’s certainly too much for me to be spending regularly on soap myself at the moment and what does it say about me that I accept regular upgrades to my standard of living from a man and ...etc etc.

2) on dates - we’re always doing something we both want to do. But occasionally he will suggest an experience that is really a huge treat version of something we’d normally do - a swanky-ish weekend away, or club-level seats at a playoff ball game, etc. To him it makes the experience more fun, special, convenient, whatever - to me it does that but also makes me feel conspicuously aware that I don’t have that kind of ability to upgrade anything except via time and energy - which are of course also in short supply.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:21 AM on November 16, 2017

Since you seem to be a cis-het woman and he a cis-het man, and you see this relationship continuing a while, IMO it would be great (i.e., critical, imperative) for your continued happiness to each develop skill and grace acknowledging the double-whammy power imbalance that comes with this circumstance. I have been in your shoes and would not step into them again without being dispassionately honest with myself up-front, about where I see his/my/our default settings and skills regarding partnership, equity, decision making, mutual benefit, veto power, private/public roles, feminism (if that's your thing), emotional labor, etc.

And I would document all major pre-marital decisions that impact your financial well-being: any agreements you make about how to handle living arrangements or shared costs, any jobs you take or pass up in order to be together or facilitate either other's careers, etc. A simple email to yourself is enough.

How to receive generosity...
Remember that you can change the dynamic anytime the circumstances change. So for now you're dating. Be wooed, be treasured, be doted on! If you come to a milestone where things feel different, it's perfectly ok to have a sit-down where you say, "The game seems to be changing so I'd like to talk about acknowledging that explicitly and changing the rules of play if needed."

Perceived by his family and friends as a gold digger...

If he's truly wealthy, there are not many romantic prospects around who are financial peers. Their feelings are not on you to manage.

Giving you things/taking you places you can't afford...

This can go either way. If they're places and things you genuinely enjoy and which reflect his attention to who you are as a unique individual, then that seems wonderful. However, if places and plans are sprung on you which he considers gifts to you simply because they're expensive or out of reach for you, then that has other weirdness about it. You'll need to pay attention to your own feelings to see what's going on for you, but again, it's proper for you to speak up if that sort of thing bothers you.

For Christmas, ask him what he'd like to do and tell him what you'd like to do. Figuring these things out together is the work and the fun stuff. No one knows this stuff ahead of time, wealthy or not.

MeMail me if you'd like to talk more.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:28 AM on November 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

We all bring different skills and benefits to our partner inside of a relationship. For example, I have usually been much more robustly socially networked than my partners. I enjoy the fact that I can do something nice to improve their life. Being able to use the money for something meaningful, in order to make someone he loves smile, is a really wonderful gift that you are giving him.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:30 AM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I don’t have that kind of ability to upgrade anything except via time and energy..."
This is an example of what I was referring to, about noticing your default settings. For women this is a very natural default, but one that can erode your own life's trajectory and reserve. You may feel an internal pressure to "be gracious" or "upgrade his life" in ways you can (e.g., doing his laundry 'cuz you're doing your own anyway, not venting about your day because you might ruin the mood of an expensive date, drawing down your savings incrementally more by springing for a cab to prove you're an equal contributor to the relationship, etc. etc.). Those are all "nice things to do for your loved one" but if they're generated by a circumstantial base inequality that is then compounded by a patriarchal system, it can grow to a problem if you're not honest about the fact that only one of you is doing them.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:54 AM on November 16, 2017 [34 favorites]

I could have written your question 8 years ago. When I met my SO, I was beyond broke, unemployed, struggling to make it in a helping profession. He had a stable job, good retirement, health insurance (!), discretionary income... you get the idea. Huge imbalance. The income disparity wasn't like rags-to-riches or anything, but it was significant and I often felt guilty. A couple months into our relationship, we celebrated Valentine's Day with a nice dinner out, and I couldn't contribute. I felt awful. But... I really wanted to give him something from the heart. So I made him a small scrapbook of all the things we'd done, the dates we'd been on, and he absolutely loved it. Like, I can't describe how much he appreciated this book. I was a little embarrassed to give it at the time because I was so broke, and I couldn't do anything "nice" to go along with it (i.e. champagne or something). I was mistaken. It was so thoughtful and it showed how much I adored him. He said it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.

Well, that little book became quite the tradition. 8 years later, we have a shelf full of little scrapbooks, and we treasure them. Our latest one will be of a European trip that, over this past year, I've been able to save up for (most) of my share. The one after that will be of our first born child.

For us, things are not 100% equal, but the thing is... "fair" isn't when everyone gets the same thing, it's when everyone gets what they need. I think the same thing applies to you. Equality, for you guys, doesn't mean that you both contribute the same thing in equal measure. It's when you contribute what you *can.*

I try to remember that there are plenty of other things in life to fret about, and money is one of those triggers that has the power to make us freak out over EVERYTHING we lack, not just what's in the bank account. What is it about money that makes it a direct line to our emotions? It hits in a deep place. It's a tough thing to reconcile, and honestly it took me years. I still struggle with it. But, honestly, you sound like such a self-reflective and thoughtful person. The fact that you posted this question precludes you from any gold digging behavior.

Make peace with the disparity however you can. For me, it was creativity and thoughtful gift giving. I ended up changing careers to bring more stability to the table. That helped. For my husband, it was laying out our finances much like what was mentioned above. Everything is balanced so we pay toward household stuff based on what's fair (i.e. what we make, not equal parts).

Congrats on your new relationship. Enjoy it. You sound like a lovely couple!
posted by onecircleaday at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2017 [36 favorites]

Another thought - if he dated someone in his income bracket, things would be different. She'd have a high powered career and with that comes certain demands and trade-offs for the relationship (availability and lifestyle, for example) that he may not want in a partner. You and your lifestyle may have a way of balancing this out for him.
posted by onecircleaday at 12:27 PM on November 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am in a similar situation except I met my husband RIGHT before he started making a lot more money (like literally 1 month before.) From what you've written, your boyfriend sounds sensitive to the realities of this situation, which is awesome! The major difficulty for me has been the value my husband assigns to his wealth. To him it represents his achievements and his ambition and he is very proud of what it can do for him. However, I was raised to look down on conspicuous consumption, I don't have financial ambitions and on a really fundamental level, I don't give a shit about it. It benefits me in a lot of ways - we go on nice vacations, I can buy what I want, I'm going to be able to be a stay-at-home mom soon, we will buy a nice house soon - but I know I would be just as happy if he had half of what he has. Buying me fancy jewelry or paying for a nice trip represents his success to him, to me it's just..kinda..there. This drastic difference in our perspective has caused conflicts where he uses Things Money Can Buy to make up for bad behavior. It took me a long time to realize that his financial success was a big part of his self-worth in a way it would never be for me, and his feelings get hurt when I'm dismissive of Things Money Can Buy.

Feeling like people might perceive you as a gold digger or a grifter will dissipate as time goes on - from what you've written here it's obvious that you aren't and I'm sure it's obvious to him as well. I would caution you NOT to expend more energy/time on the relationship than he does as a way to make up for what you can't afford monetarily, because that shit gets old fast and just creates resentment on your part, especially if you have differences in perception like I described above.

Also, gently, - enjoy the soap, and the good seats. You've found someone generous, which is WAY more important than wealthy. He WANTS to share these experiences with you and give you little things that make you happy, because you make him happy. Find the joy in that, because it sounds like you deserve it.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 12:39 PM on November 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

> (they’ve only been lovely to me - but I can’t imagine the thought hasn’t crossed their minds )

Not every wealthy person is hyperprotective of their family wealth, nor are they all status-obsessed over wealth; that's the kind of behavior you see among people who only hang out exclusively with wealthy people, and if that was the case, you would've felt the thumb on your head by now. And above a certain point of net-worth, nearly all of the potential dating pool is poorer than you.

Actions will speak louder than words. If they start making surreptitious moves to secure his wealth, isolate you, or cast doubt in your mind about the relationship, that's bad news. If they invite you to join the family even if he can't be there, or they include you in the circle of family news, that's good.

Above all, don't preemptively count yourself out of their family out of fear that they think you're a golddigger. Make them put in the effort if they're going to be dicks; don't let your insecurity do it for them. They're wealthy-- they've already met golddiggers, I promise. They probably know the difference between you and diggers.

Oh, and gifts: Homemade and consumable is a good way to go. Maximum thoughtfulness, within your budget. I like consumable gifts because A) yum and B) if I don't like them, "Oh that, I used it up! It was great!"
posted by Sunburnt at 12:40 PM on November 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

I was in a very similar relationship to you, in terms of financial imbalance. I don't know your situation, but in my case it was a very obvious financial disparity, from day 1 (humanities grad student, meet senior tech company dude!), so it's not like there was ever any pretense or any sense that I would try and hide my poverty. I was very obviously poor, he was very obviously not.
I was INCREDIBLY adamant early on that I would always pay my share, that I wouldn't accept things I couldn't afford myself (which was....everything), that we would only go to restaurants I could afford, etc. I made these conditions both because of my not-insignificant personal pride, but also because I was extremely wary of the power imbalance that could -however unintentionally - result from the wealth imbalance.
At first, the issues were mostly trivial and pride-based (i.e. refusing to let him pay for my dinner, even though it meant I could only eat a salad or a glass of wine; bailing on planned excursions because an unexpected expense had come up and I could no longer afford to go, etc.), but I was extremely up-front with him and explained to him exactly why I felt the way I did: while him buying me a glass of wine or a ticket to the state fair might be relatively trivial, I did not feel comfortable when I couldn't reciprocate in kind, and I absolutely did not want to establish a pattern wherein I ever felt like I was financially indebted to him or owed him anything in a material sense (which I was worried could morph into other, not-strictly-financial senses). He listened, and he accepted my position. For the first several months of our relationship, he essentially lived a grad-student lifestyle when he was with me. To be honest, looking back I think it was kind of unfair of me to demand that of him, but to his credit he did it willingly and without complaint, and never tried to push back at my reservations.
Things got trickier when we moved in together. It was no longer practical for us to both live at my "level", and we had to have some serious conversations about things that were, for me, very difficult: how will we split the rent? how will we pay for groceries and household things? vet bills? pet food? Suddenly, all the things that I'd learned to just scrape together and improvise on my own for the many (many) years that I had been poor had a huge impact on someone else. At this point, I came face to face (rather uncomfortably) with how much my intransigence about money had been inconsiderate of his needs and desires: while asking someone to eat at a cheap restaurant instead of a fancy one doesn't feel like a big imposition, asking them to live in a shitty apartment really, really does. We talked A LOT. We eventually came to a compromise very much like the one described above, in which we decided that we would each contribute to the rent and expenses based on the percentage of income we brought in to the household. It took me a while to get used to this arrangement, and I often felt guilty handing over my silly rent cheque each month with its proportionally small (but to me big!) number on it, but it meant that we got to move into a place we both LOVED, and that my monthly expenses did not increase. It was a good and fair compromise, and I eventually got used to it.
I also realised during these moving-in-together conversations how completely my competence (or total lack thereof) with money and budgets has been entirely shaped by my formative-adult years in poverty: for me, I never EVER made a budget because there was no point. I paid the bills I had, I spent what little was left, and when it was gone, I scraped things together until the next paycheck. That's just how it worked. For him, though, budgeting and investing and saving and all these things were super important, and just as foundational. My bad habits with money (in which I'll occasionally splurge on shit I can't afford because why the hell not? I wasn't going to get to eat properly for the month anyway, so why not starve in fancy shoes? :P ) were baffling to him, while his conservatism and frugality with money was occasionally infuriating to me (like, why won't you just buy yourself that awesome thing you want? You can afford it! Just do it! Grar!). I mention this just because this became a thing for us, and was very very unexpected to me, and definitely required care and patience to work through, so its something you might want to keep in mind.
Long story short: That relationship is now a marriage (woot!), and the financial imbalance has not changed. I still occasionally feel guilty that I don't contribute my "share", but over the years I have loosened up a little about letting him pay for things that we otherwise wouldn't be able to do (flights home for Christmas to visit my family probably being the most significant of those). It can still feel weird sometimes. But really, talking about it and making clear financial plans that you both understand and agree on takes a LOT of the awkwardness/guilt/etc out of it. Money is stupid and I hate it and I LOATHE talking about it, but it is necessary for my peace of mind that we touch base about it every once in a while.

Re: gift-giving: I often address this by making "big occasion gifts" (birthdays, Christmas, whatever) more about time and experiences than things. So, for example, my Christmas gift to him a few years ago was to plan and organize a multi-day backpacking trip, and to block off time to do it. Or sometimes I'll buy him something that he really wants, but would never buy for himself. Even though, because our finances are more or less merged now, in actuality he is basically "paying" for his own gift, since he would never spoil himself with it, it's kind of like the "gift" I'm giving him is the permission/"cover" to pamper himself with something he really wants......or at least that's what I've been telling myself!

Really long answer for a really boring response: talk about it. Be up front. Explain why you feel the way you do. Make a plan. Enjoy each other!!
posted by Dorinda at 12:48 PM on November 16, 2017 [20 favorites]

I have been on the money side of this situation, and it did not work out (for a variety of reasons, money being only a minor one). You should think about what you want to do in your life, especially in your career, and whether your motivation to do it would be undercut by having "way more than enough" money already. Can you fight through obstacles and hustle and get up early every day in order to advance a career that can never hope to contribute more than 5% to the household income?

It is easy to resolve that of course you would never be a kept woman, you are independent and can make it on your own. And you can! But the option will always be there to say "take this job and shove it", or give up on the business that isn't getting off the ground. Even if you are doing what you love there will be bad days where having that option on the table can start to eat away at you.
posted by allegedly at 3:25 PM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think you have shorter term considerations while dating, then longer term considerations if you move-in or get engaged.

Shorter Term: As others have mentioned, talk to him about it. It's sounds like you have some anxiety over how his family perceives you, but you just need to be transparent with him and let him manage his family. As far as dates and gifts, what I have seen work well is if you contribute where you can. For example, he takes to you out to dinner at a lavish restaurant he wants to try, let him pick up check so that you can both enjoy yourselves. Then, next week when you are just getting pizza or whatever, you can pick up the check to show that you do want to contribute your relationship. Similar thing for gifts. If he wants to purchase you expensive jewelry or something, that is fine but does not mean you need to try to keep up. He understands your financial situation and will appreciate a thoughtful gift that shows you care and are making an effort.

Longer Term: As others have mentioned, I'm a fan of the percentage method for splitting shared costs, meaning you each contribute the same percentage of your income to shared costs such as rent, electricity etc and keep the rest for your own use fun money. So for example, it looks like this in a very simplified version:

His income = $200K
Your income = $20K
Your annual shared costs (housing, food, cable, vacations, etc) = $55K

You each contribute 25% of your income to the joint expenses
His contribution = $50K
Your contribution = $5K
His fun money = $150K
Your fun money = $15K

You will still need to have conversations around what are shared costs and what are personal. Some that can be sticky: student loans, charity/tithing, continuing education, etc.

But it sounds like you may still be early in your relationship, so I would not worry about the longer term stuff until you thinking about moving in together.
posted by seesom at 4:48 PM on November 16, 2017

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